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7,000 women traveled to Florida for abortions in 2023. Key court rulings could soon end those journeys

By Caroline Catherman, Orlando Sentinel
Published: January 28, 2024, 6:00am

ORLANDO, Fla. — In 2023, more than 7,000 women traveled to Florida from another state to end their pregnancies.

They came from hundreds of miles, originating from Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, even Central America and the Caribbean. This was the closest place they could legally get an abortion, given that the majority of the South banned the procedure after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that abortion laws should be left up to the states.

In total, one out of 10 of Florida’s 78,250 recorded abortions last year was done on an out-of-state resident, according to Florida Agency for Health Care Administration data released in early January. The number of total abortions shrank by about 4,000 compared with 2022 but out-of-state residents getting the procedure increased by more than 400.

As the Florida Supreme Court contemplates the constitutionality of the state’s currently active 15-week ban, a pending 6-week ban, and a proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion access in the state’s constitution, these numbers are a reminder that the future of abortion in Florida could affect the entire Southeast.

“A 6-week ban in Florida would definitely change the entire ecosystem of this work we do,” said Christine Montero, a coordinator for Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, which helps with funding and logistics for Southeast travel for women seeking abortions.

The state Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling, though it’s unknown when, that will determine whether Florida’s constitution currently allows for the state’s current 15-week limit and, by extension, the 6-week limit passed signed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis that will only take effect if the 15-week ban is upheld.

Both laws have limited exceptions for rape, incest, the mother’s life and fatal fetal abnormalities, though medical professionals have previously told the Orlando Sentinel that the law does not use clinical terms and is difficult to interpret.

Six weeks of gestation is two weeks after a pregnant person misses their first period, and, combined with Florida’s current requirement of two in-person abortion clinic visits at least 24 hours apart, reproductive advocates and medical experts argue that a 6-week ban would amount to an all-out ban for many.

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Meanwhile, a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect abortion rights in Florida recently got enough signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot, though anti-abortion advocates are challenging it. The Supreme Court must sign off on the language for the amendment to appear on the ballot in the fall. The court has set a Feb. 7 hearing to consider the wording.

Advocates on both sides of the issue are watching with anticipation.

“Florida’s a trendsetter,” said Orlando-area lawyer John Stemberger, a leading anti-abortion voice in the state. “… We need to do more to protect the unborn in Florida and create a culture of life that’s consistent with the region that we’re in.”

There’s another side of the coin, too. Because Florida is an abortion destination, Floridians, faced with increased demand, dwindling staff and long wait times, aren’t always able to get appointments before the state’s 15-week cutoff and are increasingly traveling out of state as well.

“In addition to increasing our capacity and appointment availability at our health centers, our compassionate and skilled patient navigators have helped Floridians who have needed abortion access after 15 weeks navigate out of their home state for care. If the 6-week abortion ban is implemented, their roles will become even more vital,” said Robyn Schickler, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, in an emailed statement.

The Brigid Alliance, a national network assisting people who need to travel for abortion, helped about 195 Florida women and girls to travel from Florida to get abortion care in 2023 to states that allow abortions later in pregnancy.

The average total cost per person was about $3,000, and the average Floridian traveled more than 1,800 miles round trip, said Serra Sippel, interim executive director.

“People having to travel north to places where they can get the care, that is just so costly and (has) so many hurdles, especially (for) people in rural areas, people who have never left their states before, have never left their communities, have never been on a plane before,” Sippel said.

Abortion funds say they are mostly able to meet demand but are still feeling the strain.

In 2023, Access Reproductive Care-Southeast received a total of 32,398 calls to its health line and supported more than 3,000 patients across the Southeast with abortion assistance totaling more than $1.3 million.

The network closed Wednesday for the rest of the month because it ran out of funds.

“That’s not something that happens often but it is something that is happening. And it’s something that I foresee happening more because there is such high demand,” Montero said.

In states with reduced abortion access, amid increasingly high OBGYN clinic wait times and funds stretched thin, other obstacles are popping up that make traveling for care more complicated and expensive.

Some pregnant people will go to pregnancy clinics that offer free medical services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling. The centers lack regulatory oversight and have been reported to spread misinformation in an attempt to discourage abortion, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“They’re seemingly an accessible resource for folks to get information about pregnancy, but we have found that they cloud up people’s experiences, and maybe provide disinformation to get folks confused,” Montero said.

Sipple and Montero said Brigid Alliance and Access Reproductive Care-Southeast have had multiple clients who received incorrect information from a crisis pregnancy center about how long they’ve been pregnant, traveled to another state, then realized they were farther along than the state allowed and were no longer within its limits, forcing them to travel again.

“It’s just so disruptive and a horrible way to treat people. It’s just inhumane and so disrespectful,” Sippel said.

Stemberger praised the pregnancy centers and the resources they provided. He called incidences of disinformation “isolated incidents, if at all.”

“It’s ironic and rich that the abortion industry would be accusing these women of trying to do this,” he said. “These pregnancy centers are just trying to provide another option.”

In addition to counseling against abortion, these centers offer classes on pregnancy and parenting, where they provide some pregnancy and baby supplies such as diapers or used baby clothes.

The nonprofit Florida Pregnancy Care Network manages such clinics in Florida. The network secured a $29.4 million contract with the Florida Department of Health in October, according to records obtained by Reveal at The Center for Investigative Reporting.